China has received some diplomatic warnings in the past few months not to increase the scale and intensity of its crackdown on Uighur “separatists,” because doing so would make the entire Uighur people hostile, and it would be impossible to imprison them all.
In accounts heard from the separatists, before their heroes were imprisoned, many of them had made a courageous pronouncement: “My absence is equal to the disappearance of a single stone of the Tengri Tagh mountain [Tianshan, 天山], and my people, the Tengri Tagh, will live forever.”
However, in the last four years, China has cast doubt on this longevity by detaining 1.8 million people in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, also known as East Turkistan.
How was this possible? It involved not 1.8 million sheep, but human beings. How could it have been done without resistance? And how could it have been done and kept secret for an entire year?
As experts have noted, many factors contributed to the mass detainment’s success, including China’s economic might, technological advantages and decades of experience with societal control, as well as the weakness of international law and institutions.
One contributing factor that so far has not been mentioned is the state-orchestrated trap.
According to the Radio Free Asia Uighur Service, which closely monitors Xinjiang, when the detention camps were established in 2017, China first focused its arrests on young people born in the 1970s through the 1990s, those blacklisted as the “dangerous generation.”
After that, middle-aged parents were arrested. In the third step, even some older people who were dissatisfied with the detention of their family members were seized.
Females were not spared; family members were detained in order from the strongest to the weakest, men before women. None from the “dangerous generation” imagined that their wives and then their parents would be detained, and their children taken to orphanages.
Nor were the detainees told the truth about the length of their “vocational training,” with most being informed that it would last 15 days, with others being told three months or six.
Because they knew they were guilty of nothing, most could not have imagined that this “training” would become an indefinite detention. Some were aware of “minor mistakes” on their part — praying or reading the Koran, for instance.
However, they believed that they would be released after a few weeks or months of “education,” their punishment for being Uighurs.
They had a basis for hope. The short-term “re-education courses” had begun in the region in 2009, before any campaigns in Xinjiang were known to the outside world.
For example, Nurmemet Abdulla, a Uighur refugee now living in Germany, was detained for a political re-education course in Yarkent County along with more than 1,000 others, all of whom were released after six months.
Likewise, more than 100 petitioners, including Patigul Ghulam, who was searching for her missing son, were detained in Urumchi for two weeks during the China–Eurasia Expo in September 2012, but most were released after the event.
Therefore, in 2017, the Uighurs assumed that the first mass detentions were security measures in preparation for the upcoming 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress and never imagined that the re-education courses were being replaced by internment camps as a key tool in their genocide.
The trap that was set to abet this genocide involved giving either no information or false information to detainees. The unknown range of their families’ detention left them helpless in being able to support each other, with their neighbors unable to organize or provide assistance. This trap enabled China to put the Tianshan in a box.
This trap was set when the Uighurs were most vulnerable, having experienced a campaign of harsh repression during the previous three years.
In a report titled “Focusing on main goals, continue to strengthen the ‘de-extremism’ re-education projects,” published in December 2017, Qiu Yuanyuan (邱媛媛), a researcher at the CCP’s Central Party School, described the Uighurs’ vulnerability: “In 2014, 2015 and 2016, our strike-hard campaigns in Xinjiang were very broad and rigorous. It was impossible for their relatives not to be heartbroken and angry with us; therefore, to maintain stability and protect the progress made over the previous three years, we established the comprehensive training camps, even though they had committed no actual crimes.”
Yes, the world’s rising superpower trapped a restive, ancient people and put them in a box. Given the scale of this operation, history might record this as the ruse of the century.
Shohret Hoshur is a Uighur-American journalist.
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